Examining what you think you know to be true

My favorite line from the movie Men in Black is right after Will Smith's character sees his first alien, a NYC pawn shop operator he's known for years whose head gets blown off by Agent K, Tommy Lee Jones character, and then grows back immediately — obviously not from this planet. As they sit outside on a bench processing what just happened, Agent K says “1500 years ago, everybody knew that the earth was the center of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody knew that the earth was flat. And 15 minutes ago, you knew that people were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.” You can see a clip of that scene.Responsibility Redefined has somewhat prepared me — I won't say “taught” — to acknowledge and even appreciate it when I get smacked in the face with a totally new reality (even though my family and teammates will tell you I still am likely to say no at first to their new ideas). And I like books and movies that expand my sense of perspective and understanding by challenging what I think I know to be true. Here are some that fit that description.

I've been listening to the audiobook Enough: Staying Human in An Engineered Age by Bill McKibben. I'm not finished yet, but I've heard enough to scramble some of my cranial eggs. McKibben seems to have good knowledge of the literatures of genetic engineering, nano technology, and cloning. He argues that humanity is at a critical choice point and his position is made clear by the title. Enough. McKibben says that to use these three technologies to ensure that your children will be as good a violinist (or a tall thin blond, a baseball player, an intellect — and don't forget combinations of all soon-to-be-purchasable traits) as you are is to remove all meaning from being a good violinist, or a tall blonde intellectual baseball player. As my 14-year-old quipped in the car while driving and listening together, “What's the point of running the race if victory is assured?”

Enough gives new meaning to the phrase “the end of humanity as we know it” and could be a good one to help you examine your sense of responsibility for where society is headed.

And on that note, I've not yet seen An Inconvenient Truth, but I have heard from an activist friend that I should.

An oldie but goldie by now is the trilogy (and more) by my friend Daniel Quinn. More than ten years ago I read Ishmael. It was such an involving tale, I couldn't put it down. Then I re-read it immediately. Then I wrote a note to the author who had inserted a PO Box in the back of the book for contacting him. The PO Box was in Austin, TX. I was in Austin, TX!

The winner of a sizable cash award from Ted Turner for fiction that presents ideas for a better future, Ishmael had been re-written and set aside as not yet good enough seven times by Daniel before he finally published it. And now it's a classic.

Daniel responded to my note and he and his wife Rennie have been good acquaintances ever since. They left Austin for the Montrose neighborhood of Houston and a better selection of restaurants, but we still have dinner together every couple of years.

What is Ishmael about? It is a fictional tale of a gorilla that talks telepathically and befriends — and is befriended by — a student who is searching for the meaning of life. Quinn uses this plot line to confront you and me about our beliefs and the stories we hold so dear about our culture. What it really is though is a tour de force on System Thinking and about my (and your) responsibility to examine and understand how interdependent we are with our world and whether we should simply believe our cultural (or organizational, or familial) stories and beliefs because we were enveloped by them and they soaked naturally into us.

Read Ishmael, then The Story of B and finally My Ishmael. And if you've already read them, reread them.

What does this all have to do with you? Leaders are supposed to embrace responsibility, learning, and change. Stretching your senses about what you think you know to be true is preapration for the front lines and the big leagues of leadership… so that you'll have a greater ability to respond.

More later.

Posted in Recommended Resources on 07/05/2006 05:09 pm
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